SHEEP ROCK – the first “postmodernist” novel?

One of the most overlooked works of George R. Stewart is the remarkable novel  Sheep Rock.  Stewart considered it one of his “ecological novels;” or, as he put it, a novel about “all the things that go to make up a place.”

It is set in a harsh desert place, somewhere in Nevada.  The book has a double focus – a recurring set of characters commenting on the place; and a young poet, trying to write a poem about the place.  This double focus challenges the reader to keep things straight and understandable.

But keeping those two foci straight is only the beginning of the demands made on the readers.  The book is divided into three parts, each named after a landform in the area.  Each of those parts reveals more of the place’s physical and historical geography; each reveals more of the poet’s tale; and each has a short story about one of the artifacts that the poet finds during his wanders around the site.

But Sheep Rock is more than an attempt to describe or understand one place.  In other work by Stewart, the ecosystem is the protagonist, but is represented by an ecological event – the storm, the fire, the virus.  Here, instead of singling out one of these natural events as representative of the ecosystem, Stewart uses the entire ecosystem and history of the place as the protagonist.  The place is on every page of the novel; humans are not.

George R. Stewart called the novel “Three times round and three times round.”  It is not a read for those with lazy minds – the novel takes work to read.  Yet it is an exhilarating book, because he breaks the rules, catches readers by surprise, then thrills them with something new that works.

The two commentators – they appear in a prologue, what might be called “interlogues” between the main parts, and in an epilogue – are not unlike a Greek chorus.  But instead of commenting on the story of the poet they comment on changes they see in the place over 15 or 20 years.

Then, in the middle of the epilogue, in  which can confuse readers – or exhilarate them – the author steps out of the work, and describes how he researched and wrote it.  Since the book is no longer in copyright, I’ll share part of that:

I, George Stewart, did this work….

I have looked into the blue and green depths of the spring, and have climbed

the rock, and gazed out across the desert. That first night, the grim fascination of

the place rose within me, and I thought of this book.

That time I was with Charlie. I was there again—with Jack, with Selar, with

Carl and Parker and Starker, with Brig and Roy. I said to myself, “I shall know

more about this place than anyone knows of any place in the world.” So I took

the others there, and one looked at the beaches and the hills, and another at the

grass and the shrubs, and another at the stone-work among the hummocks, and

so it went, until at last each had shared with me what he knew. Besides, I read

the books….

The names he mentions are those of the greatest geographic and scientific minds of his time.  Carl Sauer, Parker Trask, Charles Camp, Starker Leopold (Aldo Leopold’s son), Jack Stewart.  Geographer, geologist, historian, paleontologist, wildlife biologist.

Stewart tells readers how he wrote all his books, especially his novels of the ecosystem.  He took those colleagues with him to the places he was writing about.  There, they educated him about the natural and human history of a place – its geography, or ecology.  Then he wove their knowledge into narrative, as the poet of the place.

Does it work?  Ken Carpenter, Director of Special Collections at the University of Nevada Reno – UNR has the second largest Stewart collection – thought the book was a failure, and Stewart knew it.  Carpenter points out that, in his oral history, Stewart mentions Sheep Rock more than any other work.  Carpenter believes this emphasis on Sheep Rock results from Stewart’s dissatisfaction with the work. (Stewart’s Oral History, A Little of Myself, is now online and can be downloaded.)

On the other hand,  Josephine Miles, Stewart’s colleague in the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and the first female University Professor at Cal, thought it was a tremendous success, a new kind of work of fiction that broke the boundaries of the traditional novel or short story.

“Three times round and three times round,” and attempting to use precise intellectual study of the place and narrating the poet’s search for a belief system  would qualify the novel  for consideration as post-modernist.  That’s why a scholar of Robinson Jeffer’s work calls the book “post-modernist.”

Successful or not, post-modernist or not, the novel is a great read for anyone who interested in place.  That’s both because it is one of the most thorough-going attempts to understand a place in fiction, and because it’s a pleasure to watch how Stewart has structured the work.

1 thought on “SHEEP ROCK – the first “postmodernist” novel?

  1. Don, Strange that this piece about Sheep Rock should be posted again just two weeks after I finished reading Sheep Rock. I recently bought two hardback first editions through Amazon, both with dust jackets and one autographed by George R. Though I have a limited understanding of postmodernism, two paragraphs in the book jumped out at me as postmodern: On p. 108 ” Even so, by what right do I say ‘fair or pleasant’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’? All such qualities are not in the country itself, but are only in the mind of man. and so also is that quality of mystery, even though at times I talk of it.” On p. 117 “Beauty and graciousness are in the human mind, and not in any thing or any place.”

    Here are clues to the frustration of the would- be poet. He cannot write without attributing qualities and meanings to things and events outside himself, yet he intuitively knows this is wrong. Unable to commit to external attribution, his postmodern attitude holds him back!

    Of course the Sheep Rock is the Black Rock, namesake of the Black Rock Desert and of Black Rock City, site of the annual Burning Man extravaganza. As I read the book I kept my iPad close by so I could look at the excellent satellite image available on the Maps ap. I could zoom in on the spring, the meadow, the hummocks, the black rock and the red mountain behind, all in 3-D and high definition. Incredible! I have been planning a trip out there for several weeks now but the rains have arrived and the playa won’t be drivable for the foreseeable future, so I must wait. It is strange that friends who have been to Burning Man don’t recall ever seeing the Black Rock. It should be visible from Black Rock City (also visible in the satellite image) but perhaps it is partially hidden by the hummocks. Or perhaps they are so preoccupied by the human activity that they don’t bother to look at the landscape.

    I also purchased two hardback copies of Storm and just finished reading it last night. Wonderful passages of first rate nature writing; and of course, always the big ecological perspective. I also finished “The Life and Work of George R. Stewart”. I suspect that makes me a member of a rather exclusive group. It is obvious that it is a work of love, beautifully researched and written! I especially appreciated the little sections on the “California Enlightenment” and “Stewart’s close geography.” Although I didn’t go to Cal, I did hang out there a lot in the early 60s and am very familiar with the things you describe. Thank you for writing that. On a trivial note, I have the book Between pacific Tides by Hedgepeth. Now I know why I found the text of that volume so readable and interesting.

    Finally, I will mention that I also bought three new paperback copies of Earth Abides. So several people on my gift list will be getting George R. Stewart for Christmas.

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